Why Nick Clegg is in the wrong job

By Martin Bright, September 17, 2013
Nick Clegg (Photo: AP)

Nick Clegg (Photo: AP)

It has always been something of a mystery why Nick Clegg didn’t demand a serious job for himself in government, settling instead for a seat around the Cabinet table and the meaningless title of Deputy Prime Minister. A Coalition deal that looked canny for the Lib Dem leader at the outset now looks like electoral poison.

I have always thought the obvious job for Mr Clegg would have been Foreign Secretary. Anyone who has ever talked to him on the subject of international affairs knows that he has a strong grasp on Europe and the politics of the former Soviet bloc.

He has experience of the inner workings of EU institutions, both as an advisor to trade commissioner Leon Brittan and as an MEP. He also speaks several languages, which is almost unheard of for a British politician.

His own party has always been the main obstacle to Mr Clegg developing a credible position on Israel-Palestine. He was too slow to act against Jenni Tonge when she called for an investigation into allegations that the IDF were harvesting body parts in Haiti, and he has allowed David Ward to become a new running sore. But his own position on the politics of the region has always been measured and sober.

It is easy enough to understand why the Liberal Democrat leader didn’t demand the Foreign Office. It would have taken him too far from Westminster and made him more vulnerable to manoeuvrings from his Coalition partners and critics within his party. It would also have been difficult for David Cameron to square the appointment of such a pro-European figure to the post with his own party.

The truth is that British politics remains desperately insular and foreign policy is often based on limited understanding of the world beyond our shores. Despite paying lip-service to the significance of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, none of the party leaders has given it serious attention.

Instead, we are left with received wisdom and platitudes. Ed Miliband’s tweet after meeting the Palestinian president was a classic in the genre: “Just met with President Abbas and agreed the importance of achieving a negotiated peace to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. Rarely have 140 characters been used to such banal effect.

Nick Clegg’s stock is so low that I realise it is deeply unfashionable to speak well of him. But I believe he would have made a good Foreign Secretary. It’s a shame he didn’t feel confident enough to demand the post. It would have given him the opportunity to build an international reputation while challenging the widely held view that all senior British politicians are monolingual, xenophobic philistines.

Last updated: 3:50pm, September 17 2013